September 15th, 2013
09:29 AM ET
5 years ago

Obama on Syria criticism: Washington grades on style, not substance

Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama has responded to critics who disagree with his handling of the situation in Syria, saying he's more concerned about the end goal - no chemical weapons in Syria - than about "style points."

In an interview that aired Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Obama downplayed the controversy over Vladimir Putin's opinion piece in The New York Times last week, saying "this is not a Cold War" and that he welcomes the Russian president's involvement in the issue.

As for the public perception of his own management of the U.S. response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, Obama said, "Folks here in Washington like to grade on style."

"And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear - they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy," he continued. "We know that, 'cause that's exactly how they graded the Iraq War - until it ended up… blowing up in our face."

Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos whether the recent events changed his view of former President George W. Bush, Obama said, "No, no. What it says is that I'm less concerned about style points. I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right."

Obama got some of his most candid criticism last week from an ally, Republican Sen. Bob Corker. The senator told CNN's Dana Bash that the president has lost his credibility and is "very uncomfortable being commander in chief."

And following a deal reached between the U.S. and Russia on Saturday for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international control, two Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said the Syria deal "does nothing to resolve the real problem in Syria" and allows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "go on slaughtering innocent civilians and destabilizing the Middle East."

Talking about his relationship with Putin, Obama said he doesn't think his Russian counterpart "has the same values that we do" and that Putin has a "different attitude about the Assad regime." But, he said, both countries "have an interest in preventing chaos" and "preventing terrorism."

"This is not a contest between the United States and Russia. I mean, the fact of the matter is that if Russia wants to have some influence in Syria post-Assad, that doesn't hurt our interests," he said.

"And I think there's a way for Mr. Putin, despite me and him having a whole lot of differences, to play an important role in that," he continued. "And so I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, 'I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.'"

On Iran, Obama said recent negotiations over Syria could still deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons, even though the U.S. did not use force to address the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.

The president confirmed that he and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, have communicated indirectly through letters. Obama believes Iran understands that the nuclear issue is far more significant to U.S. security interests than are chemical weapons in Syria.

"A nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilizing," he said. "And so I - my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck to think we won't strike Iran. On the other hand … what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically."

"Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy," he added. "But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that in fact you can strike a deal."

Filed under: President Obama • Russia • Syria
soundoff (263 Responses)
  1. Larry L

    What Republicans would have considered a "good outcome"? America didn't have to use a military option to reduce the threat of chemical weapons getting into terrorist's hands. Had we followed McCain and Graham we'd be pouring sophisticated weapons into the hands of terror groups. Putin should be the tool to disarm Syria's chemical capability. The USSR was the one who armed them in the first place! What better outcome would Republicans have selected? I suspect this is like healthcare – where Republicans offer no ideas and only provide obstructionism.

    September 15, 2013 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  2. ThinkAgain

    "He [Obama] is criticized either way."

    Yep, that's the Repub strategy in a nutshell. All they've got is criticism, because Lord knows, they've got NOTHING else. Just a bunch of whiny children, still having a hissy fit that they've lost the last two presidential elections.

    September 15, 2013 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  3. guy

    Obama made it clear we'd so something if they used chemical weapons. They did. We made it clear that we were going to bomb/missile strike their ass for it. This caused them to agree to get rid of their chemical weapons. I don't see how this is a worse outcome than us using force and attacking them to get rid of them. I see this costing a lot less for us. If we hadn't made the threat, they'd still be sitting there with them and probably using them again. So now they won't have them and we don't have the expense. How the hell is this a bad thing? Putin sucks, but just because he was part of the solution doesn't make it a bad solution. Granted, none of this really solves the Syria problem as a whole, but most of the US population has no desire to try another Iraq type of mission in Syria. Largely, the US population doesn't care what they do so long as it isn't affecting us.

    September 15, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  4. MIchael Girouare

    Obama says he's not concerned about "style points". The headline writer says Washington grades on style, not substance. I think this was a Freudian episode of some kind, because style definitely takes precedence over substance in American (and Canadian) politics these days. Does anyone need a proofreader?

    September 15, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  5. BO

    A new poll shows a record number of Americans do not trust the government to fix any of America’s problems. And another Economist/YouGov poll shows Obama's presidential approval rating has dropped to an all time low of 38%.

    Back to the poll on trusting government, an all-time low percentage of Americans, 51 percent, do not have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the government’s capabilities to get the job done it is supposed to do.

    September 15, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  6. Bill davis

    DC sure likes to see a smile, and hear a joke.
    Glad to see Putain soes not need a teleprompter

    September 15, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  7. Yeah

    assad and Obama are two of kind , they can do anything they want

    September 15, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  8. omeany

    No war with Syria! That's pretty much what I wanted out of this. It is my sincerest hope that this will disuade our leaders in the future from involving us in military actions abroad when our own infrastructure is decaying around us. The President's pride may have taken a hit but at least we won't have to order even more body bags for our service men and women.

    September 15, 2013 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  9. newsjet

    Wait a minute. "Washington grades on style" not substance. Isn't that opposite of what Washington should be doing?

    September 15, 2013 06:27 pm at 6:27 pm |
  10. larry

    I’ve got the campaign slogan: Rootin, Tootin, Putin,
    You’re Darn Tootin!

    September 15, 2013 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  11. Steve M

    PAB you are right on with your comment. I would add that both terms have been characterized by Mr. Obama blaming others for his failures while taking credit for others achievements. He has shown the world that he is weak in his convictions.

    September 15, 2013 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  12. newsjet

    For ==+ scott in ga +==....Obama did not find a diplomatic solution. Putin found it. Obama was taken by surprise and still apparently is hanging onto the military option; even though nearly every country in the world, and the majority of Americans oppose it.

    September 15, 2013 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  13. lol

    I find it funny how ordinary citizens of this country (USA) are taking pot shots at the president like they have some sort of information that the rest of us ordinary citizens don't have let alone the president himself. ... NONE of you know what you are talking about! ALL of you are getting your information from the SAME place and flip flopping. What most of you are forgetting is it wasn't president obama who invaded iraq on a LIE. but it was president obama who braught our troops home! He obviously messed up when he didn't do what he felt he should have done with syria which was strike their chemical weapons facilities... now what are all of you going to say when Syria and Russia use thoughs exact same chemical weapons on the USA? Oh wait..!. its still president obams fault right?

    September 15, 2013 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  14. Yuk!

    You've got lots of style, but no substance Obama....!

    September 15, 2013 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  15. observer1776

    "President Barack Obama has responded to critics who disagree with his handling of the situation in Syria, saying he's more concerned about the end goal – no chemical weapons in Syria – than about "style points.""
    Obama and his Democrat flunky's who march in lock step, will now go into super spin to change a defeat into victory.
    Obama is ignoring the fact that Syria has already started to ship it's chemical weapons to safe haven in Iraq and Iran.
    Iran is celebrating it;s victory where it can agree to a diplomatic solution for its nuclear arms, while it increases it supply of nuclear arms. When the domestic attacks by our Islamic enemies grow in number and severity, Obama will explain it away as "home grown terrorists. Our country is no in deep do=do because we are being damaged by a pot smoking coke using closet Muslim President and a coke using anti-war turncoat who accused the USA of committing war crimes.

    September 15, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  16. Calif US Patriot

    If the Syrian president committed crimes against his own people, and its enough to send our military might to judge him....why is Hussein Obama just settling for taking away his weapons? What about the justice for all those children Obama was 'crying' for?

    September 15, 2013 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  17. Gospeedracer

    Obama will checkmate Putin in 2 moves. First move was Kerry mtg w/ Russian FM, next move – UN security resolution (Note : it does not restrict US bombing Syria to the Stone Age.

    September 15, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  18. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    Just like there were people who cheered when the U.S. lost the 2016 Olympics, because it was going to be held in Chicago, Obama's hometown, there are people cheering on an ex-KGB agent because he's telling off Obama. And these are the same people who will say Obama doesn't love America.

    September 15, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  19. ScrewTheLeft

    Obama rebuts Putin Op-Ed...
    "I know you are, but what am I?"

    September 15, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  20. Jack

    Yes, People are weird. For friends, you will forgiven a great many missteps, but those you don't like, the slightest misstep is grievous offense.

    September 15, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  21. 111Dave111

    Republican Sen. Bob Corker [said] that the president has lost his credibility and is "very uncomfortable being commander in chief."
    If a Democrat said that about a sitting Republican President, about a foreign military issue,
    the conservatives would be calling that Democrat a traitor.

    Instead of the Republican Senators coming to agreement with each other
    about anything, Syria, the US Budget, or Health Care,
    the Republican Senators whine and obstruct.
    The Republican Congressmen are even sillier (42 votes on the same bill, that is going nowhere).

    Its hard to believe anyone would vote for them in 2014.

    September 15, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  22. yogi

    The comments from the right here show clearly how simplistic their approach is, no thinking, no nuance, no intelligent analysis. The only way to solve a foreign problem is with brute force, because that is all there is left when the elevator doesn't go all the way up. Thank God we solved this phase of the Syrian conflict with diplomacy, and hopefully we can continue on this path rather than getting involved in yet another failed military involvement.

    September 15, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  23. stainpouch

    Funny thing. That's not what the Russians said when we supplied them with arms and aircraft just a few decades ago. They thought we were pretty special back then–so, when do you suppose the Russians will help save our republic from right-wing fanatics? Just curious.

    September 15, 2013 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  24. John

    A Republican siding with the Russian leader. Do you traitors know no shame?

    September 15, 2013 07:21 pm at 7:21 pm |
  25. What are you talking about?

    I don't see how the President looks bad in this situation? He pulled out the stick, Russia gets off its butts and Syria agrees to turn over weapons? I don't see how this result makes the president look bad , to me, it looks he accomplished his goal, he didn't have to fire a single shot, he didn't have to spend $2 trillion dollars, and it didn't cost him American lives??? This seems like a win to me. Maybe I'm missing something.

    September 15, 2013 07:26 pm at 7:26 pm |
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